There can be little argument Denzel Washington is one of the top three or four American actors of this generation. Over the past twenty past years, he has worked prolifically as a leading man, starring in nearly fifty pictures. He has had more than his share of clunkers (The Bone Collector, The Mighty Quinn, to name a couple) to go along with his great performances. In some of the films, it is as if he knows the script is crap and he seems disconnected with the role. When he is into the role, he is very, very good. Such is the case in Flight.
I don’t know how his role as beleaguered hero, Whip Whitaker, will stack up with is other great performances in films like Glory, Training Day, and Man on Fire, but Flight should easily land in Denzel’s top ten performances. Washington always seems to be at his best when the role is multiple dimensional, when there is a definite dark side to his character. He isn’t a comedy actor and he isn’t an action star, although he can do both. He is a dramatic character actor and he shines when his characters are edgier. This the key to his best roles.
Whip Whitaker certainly qualifies. It is a tough role because Denzel is in nearly every scene in the movie except for a few briefs scenes early in the film that set up anther character on a parallel timeline. The film focuses almost completely on Whip Whitaker, the brilliant pilot and the weak, often unlikable person. Whitaker is filled with demons and flaws and he is very good at hiding them in general. He is filled with a self loathing that reveals itself in a couple of intense scenes where he is by himself.
In the theater, the audience was entranced by Washington’s performance. We wanted Whitaker to do the right thing time and time again and he let us down time and time again. Several people even applauded at one point in the movie because they thought he finally was going to conquer an evil demon. The audience has a stake in Whitaker’s personal battle. We wanted him to exorcize those demons, despite his sometimes loathsome actions. In the end, it was the whole focal point of the film. After disappointing himself, and his friends, his family, and the audience so many times, would he in the end have the strength to do the right thing? That will be for you to find out for yourselves.
There were some nice supporting performances, especially the ever terrific Don Cheadle, but this was Denzel’s spotlight. He made us care for Whip despite all of his issues. Director veteran Robert Zemeckis proved he hasn’t lost his touch over seeing a live action film. There were some fine directorial moments in this film, namely the plane scene, but there were a lot of subtle moments as well. Zemeckis did a great job giving us quiet scenes with just Denzel that showed Whitaker’s inner battle playing out on his face and in his soul. Zemeckis also knows when you work with an actor like Denzel Washington, just get out of his road and let him do is thing. It was certainly a successful combination here.
I love dramatic character studies. They may be my favorite type of movies. Flight falls squarely into this category and I wasn’t disappointed. The film was a little over two hours long but I was so entranced that it flew by. I didn’t check my watch even once. Denzel Washington was at his best and I will be shocked if he doesn’t earn another nomination for the gold statuette. He is worthy but I have a funny feeling that it is going to be tough to beat out Daniel Day-Lewis. Regardless, Denzel deserves whatever awards come his way. Flight is rated R at it fully deserved that rating. This film is not appropriate for younger audiences and I do not recommend it for pre- or young teens. Don’t let that stop you from having a date night and going to see this great movie.
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